The role of government featured prominently throughout the first presidential debate on Wednesday night, but the candidates did not offer specific ideas on how to manage the federal bureaucracy more effectively.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney again mentioned that, if elected, he would reduce the federal workforce through attrition and reorganize departments and eliminate programs that don’t achieve results to make government more efficient. He also specifically mentioned the military a few times throughout the 90-minute debate, saying: “I don’t believe in cutting our military. I believe in maintaining the strength of our military.”
Moderator Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour specifically asked President Obama and Romney about their philosophy of government, which yielded a 10-minute riff on the topic. “The first role of government is to keep people safe,” said Obama, adding, “The [federal] government has the opportunity…to free up ladders of opportunity where people can succeed.”
Romney said the role of government is to “promote and protect the principles” of documents like the Constitution; he also used the phrase “trickle-down government” to characterize the president’s approach to policy.
But neither candidate was specific about how they would make government more efficient or effective. Instead, most of the debate regarding the role of government focused on policy issues, primarily education and health care. “The right answer is not having the federal government take over health care,” Romney said during a discussion of the 2010 Affordable Health Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic achievement to date.
The two candidates also sparred over the role of government in education. “The federal government can play an important role in education,” Romney said. “The federal government can get local and state schools to do a better job.” He emphasized, however, the greater role state governments should play in deciding policy, particularly in education and health care.
During the discussion about education, Obama articulated his own vision of the role the federal government should take: “This is where budgets matter because budgets reflect choices.”
Lehrer also asked the candidates how they would deal with a gridlocked Congress that has left federal agencies paralyzed. Obama and Romney said they have a record of working with both parties on issues, and would continue to do so as commander-in-chief. But neither offered a substantive response as to how they would change the hyper-partisan atmosphere in Washington.